Quick, without cheating, who was the last left-handed thrower to play at least five games in a season at 2nd base, 3rd base or shortstop?
If you answered the White Sox' Mike Squires in 1984, shame on you, you filthy, cheating hobo. Squires, as you now already know, who played ten replacement-level seasons mostly as a first baseman and outfielder, filled in 13 games for regular 3B Vance Law that year.
OK, how about before that? If you answered Cincinnati's Hal Chase, who in 1916 appeared 16 times as a second baseman, stop it. Not cool.
How about the last left-handed shortstop to appear as many as five times in a season at that position? Would you believe it hasn't happened since 1899, when somebody named Billy Hulen played 19 games at shortstop for the Washington Senators? Of course you would, you're probably already reading the part on his Wikipedia page where he ditched his family to play amateur baseball under an assumed name in Medicine Hat.
I guess what the take-home message of this section of the article is, is that left-handed throwers simply don't play those positions. Ever. No lefty since the McKinley administration has played so much as 20 games in a season at any of those positions, and no one has come anywhere near a full season. I've never been fully convinced that it couldn't happen, but for whatever reason, it just doesn't.
So, what happens to those unfortunate lefties who have a great infield glove? If they can run, by tee-ball they're usually encouraged to play outfield. If they can throw hard, they usually pitch. If they can do neither, they invariably get stashed at first base. Which, to be honest, is probably a complete waste of their glove. Generally speaking, first base is so easy to play that there isn't much difference between a competent first baseman and a great one.
This isn't necessarily a problem, however, if he's a great hitter. By all accounts, Lou Gehrig had a slick glove. Fellow career .340 hitters, Hall of Famers and left-handed throwers George Sisler and Bill Terry were also known for their tight defense at first base.
But what if you're a different kind of hitter? What about guys like, say, Mark Grace or Keith Hernandez? Both provided excellent defense at first base, both were very good hitters, but unfortunately neither really hit for power. And when it comes time for Hall of Fame voting, if you're a post-deadball first baseman who can't hit home runs, you are going to get completely ignored.
Is this fair? Should we really be comparing slick-fielding, line-drive hitting first basemen like Grace and Mex to your typical lardass or leadglove first baseman, like Prince Fielder or Adam Dunn, who just get stashed there as a place to hide their terrible glove? Let's be honest: if it weren't for this (arguably) silly tradition preventing lefties from playing other infield positions, Keith Hernandez would have been a shortstop. With his glove and bat, a Hall of Fame shortstop. Probably first ballot. But because of this practice, he got just 5.1% in his first season of eligibility, languished in the mid-to-high single digits for a few years, then fell off the ballot and into the dustbin of history. All because he was being unfairly compared to a completely different type of player.
It might be time to start identifying players in the Grace/Hernandez mold who are doubles-hitting, defense-first lefties who play first base only because it is their only option, and considering them separately from the power-hitting, leadglove archetype who tend to get all the recognition.
So, who are the first basemen who likely would have played another infield position if they had the opportunity, and thus had a better shot at the HOF? To try and identify who these lost souls might be, I decided on the following inclusion criteria:
• Retired, but not in the Hall of Fame
• Threw left-handed
• Played at least half of his career games at 1B
• Played his entire career after 1900 (19th century stats? No thanks!)
• Had at least 1400 career hits (every Hall of Fame 2B, 3B and SS had at least that many)
• Had at least 20 career rWAR
• Had an rFielding of at least 0
Figuring this would provide us with a solid starting point, I fired up the ole Baseball-Reference.com Play Index, yielding the following 15 players:
No real obvious HOFers on there, aside from Raffy (let's forget about him since he is a different case altogether). Right? A few borderliners who quickly fell off the ballot with minimal public outrage, maybe a couple guys you’ve never heard of, maybe some beloved 80s guys with fun nicknames whose baseball cards you had as a kid, but overall, no real glaring omissions?
Well, what if these guys…threw with their right hands and not their left? Being a right-handed thrower with at least middling infield skills, it’s pretty easy to imagine most of these guys spending time at other infield positions in their careers, had they not been banished to the doldrums of first base since dad-pitch. What positions might they have played, and how would that have affected their Hall of Fame chances?
To figure this out, I first re-calculated what each of their career WARs would have been had they played each of 2nd base, 3rd base and Shortstop. On Baseball-Reference.com, WAR is calculated with the below formula:
(rBatting + rBaserunning + rDP + rFielding + rReplacement + rPosition)/(RAR per win constant, usually around 10)
To convert their WAR to each position, I did this by simply replacing their rPositions (positional adjustment based on offensive scarcity) with that of what they would have had if they had spent their entire career at the other position. Using the yearly rPositional table on BBRef, I took all the positional adjustments over the course of their career and then multiplied that by the ratio of the games they actually played divided by the number of possible games they could have played given their first and last seasons. For example, if a player played ten seasons from 1991 thru 2000, and the positional adjustment for each of those ten seasons at 2B was 5, I would figure he got +50 rPosition; I then prorated that by the number of games he played over that period. Of a possible [(162*10)-66 for the 1994-95 strike] = 1554 games during the span of his career of which he played 1400, (1400/1554) * 50 = 45 runs.
I would then re-calculate his WAR by simply replacing his positional adjustment as a first baseman with this estimated rPosition for each of 2B, 3B and shortstop, adding up the components to get a new RAR, dividing that by the same ratio yielded by (Actual RAR/Actual WAR), and then getting hypothetical WARS for each of the other three infield positions. That yielded the below table (sorted by descending rFielding):
I then had to decide which position each player would have played had he been a righty. I looked at existing clusters, and decided to split rFielding roughly in thirds, using +30 rFielding and +60 rFielding as the cutoffs – players with 0-30 rFielding became 3rd basemen, 31-60 became 2nd basemen, and over 60 became shortstops. I figured that if a player were a slightly above average first baseman, a manager could justify trying him out at 3rd base. It is a harder position to play, but he probably wouldn’t embarrass himself. The most elite-fielding 1st basemen would likely have been shortstops had they been allowed, and those in the middle I figure would have probably played 2nd base.
Let’s take a look at each player’s new positions, new WAR, and see who would have gotten in to the Hall of Fame:
3rd base: Will Clark – 67.3 WAR. Closest matches: Brooks Robinson or Ron Santo.
Verdict: The Thrill, having played his career as a third baseman, would likely have been inducted within his first five tries.
Thanks for playing: Daubert, Cooper, Camilli; all in the 48-51 range and similar to Robin Ventura, Stan Hack, Ron Cey and Toby Harrah.
2nd base: Norm Cash – 64.3 WAR. Closest matches: Ryne Sandberg or Roberto Alomar.
Verdict: Stormin' Norman is now a very strong candidate. He probably would have languished in the 40% range for about a decade before getting a Blylevenesqaue push toward the end and making it in his last try.
Judge and Mattingly, now in the mid-50s and among Joe Gordon, Jackie Robinson and Chase Utley, probably make it in the Veteran's Committee voting as old men.
So close: Blue, Joyner and White, in the mid-40s are among lower-end Hall of Famers such as Nellie Fox, Tony Lazzeri and Johnny Evers, but none of them would get elected.
Shortstop: Keith Hernandez - 82.1 WAR; John Olerud - 78.3 WAR. Closest matches: Cal Ripken, Ozzie Smith, Robin Yount.
Verdict: Both Hernandez and Olerud are slam dunk, first ballot Hall of Fame shortstops.
Mark Grace - 67.6 WAR. Closest Match: Barry Larkin
Verdict: Grace has to wait a couple years, but gets in on his second or third try.
Sorry, dude: Wally Pipp in the mid-to-high 40s is in Bert Campaneris territory.
So, this prejudice against lefties has probably cost us about five Hall of Famers: Will Clark, Norm Cash, Keith Hernandez, John Olerud and Mark Grace.
Will they ever get their due?